Thursday, November 14, 2013

SECRET CEREMONY 1968

Back before the days of celebrity tweets, round-the-clock entertainment networks, and broadcast news programs that deem it essential we know what stage of rehab Lindsay Lohan is in before enlightening us on the state of the economy; film fans had to get their Hollywood fix from movie magazines. And of the many periodicals available in 1968: Modern Screen, Photoplay, Movie Mirror, and Silver Screen, to name a few – it was difficult to find one that didn't feature either Elizabeth Taylor or Mia Farrow on its cover. The personal and professional lives of both actresses were hot topics that year, reflecting, conversely, a career on the ascendance (Rosemary’s Baby made Hollywood flower-child, Mia Farrow, into a star at the exact moment her controversial marriage to Frank Sinatra imploded), and a career in decline (after eight films together, the Taylor-Burton magic had begun to pall in the wake of a string of boxoffice flops).
In March of 1968 (the starting date of production on Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony), Elizabeth Taylor was the main draw and attraction in a film that co-starred movie neophyte Mia Farrow, and would reunite Taylor with the director of her last film, the as-yet-to-be-released Taylor/Burton opus, Boom!; a big-budget adaptation of the little-known Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. However, by October of the same year, Boom! had (appropriately enough, given its title) already bombed spectacularly at the boxoffice, while the blockbuster success of Roman Polanski’s debut American film, Rosemary’s Baby, had launched Mia Farrow as a star of tomorrow.
Advance publicity for Secret Ceremony made extensive use of suggestive (and, in director Losey's opinion, misleading) images of Taylor & Farrow, prompting superficial, but boxoffice-baiting, comparison to the forthcoming release of the lesbian-themed, The Killing of Sister George 
Overnight, the two queens of the Hollywood tabloid press had become two above-the-title movie stars appearing in the same film. Suddenly, Secret Ceremony, the difficult-to-market Elizabeth Taylor arthouse vehicle adapted from an obscure short story by Argentinian author, Marco Denevi, had a very hot property in its cast. Posters for the film subsequently beefed up Mia Farrow’s participation, unsubtly alluding to her new-found success wherever it could (“More haunted than in Rosemary’s Baby!” the ad copy read).
I was just 11-years-old when I first saw Secret Ceremony, still flush with excitement from being caught up in the early throes of a lifetime fascination with Rosemary's Baby - a film I’d seen just a few months prior. Naturally, I was fairly chomping at the bit at the prospect of seeing Mia Farrow in what looked to be another descent into horror, so, being secure in the belief that the film’s “Intended for Mature Audiences” rating accommodated know-it-all 11½-year-olds, I saw Secret Ceremony the week it opened.
Death & Rebirth
A graveside encounter where the sorrow and guilt of a childless mother (Taylor) conjoin with the forlorn loneliness of a motherless child (Farrow).
As it turns out, the combined marquee value of Taylor and Farrow proved no match for how taken aback 60s audiences were at seeing these two movie magazine divas in a sordid tale involving, as one critic cataloged, "...psychosis, incest, lesbianism, murder, suicide, obscenities...."  Secret Ceremony was lambasted by critics and flopped at the boxoffice.

I can't say that I was quite prepared for how "out there" Secret Ceremony was either, but (as should come as no surprise to anyone with a preteen in the house) there are few things more precocious (read: pretentious) than an 11-year-old film buff. I saw Secret Ceremony several times in the fall of 1968, and, enjoying it a great deal, convinced myself (if, perhaps, no one else) that I both understood it and had a solid grasp what I was watching. Ah, youth.
"What do you know about drowning?"
"Ducks don't drown."
When, in later years I revisited the film as an adult, I was surprised to find myself confronted with a movie significantly altered with age. My own, not the film’s. Somehow in the intervening years, Secret Ceremony, a movie I had once thought I'd only liked, had turned into a film I loved!
An offbeat oddity of a movie that’s as likely to impress some viewers as absurdist camp as readily as others are apt to view it as a deeply disturbing psychological exercise in magic realism; Secret Ceremony is full of motifs and themes that strike me as unimaginably obscure and inaccessible without benefit of a few years’ worth of life experience. In other words, there is no way in hell that my 11-year-old self understood this movie.
Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora Grabowski (I kid you not)
Mia Farrow as Cenci (pronounced Chen-Chee) Englehard
Robert Mitchum as Alfred
While visiting the grave of her ten-year-old daughter who drowned five years prior due to some real or imagined “neglect” on her part, Leonora (Taylor), a London prostitute, finds herself being followed by a strange, child/woman (Farrow) who insists that Leonora is her mother. That the mostly silent girl, named Cenci, recalls to Leonora her own dark-haired, hungry-eyed daughter, she allows herself to be taken to the girl's home - a huge, opulent mansion where Cenci resides in solitude - and learns that she herself bears an uncanny resemblance to Cenci’s mother, a woman whose illness and recent death the obviously unbalanced Cenci has failed to accept.
Family 
Cenci and her late mother, Margaret
Out of delusion, shared loss, mutual need and subtle self-interest, an unspoken agreement is seized upon; each allows the other to use them as an instrument of atonement for unforgiven past familial transgressions. Leonora blames herself for her daughter's death, Cenci feels guilt for attempting to gain sexual superiority over her mother with Alfred, her stepfather. These feelings are agonizing demons of guilt and regret that can only be exorcised by engaging in cryptic, ritualized ceremonies of reenactment and transference.

What makes Secret Ceremony a film that feels richer and more textured with each viewing is the fact that, in this tenuous psychological merging of damaged souls (which, for all its artifice and deceit, comes from a deeply sincere desire for intimacy), it is not made readily apparent which parties are consciously engaging in delusional role-playing and which are merely incapable of determining reality from fantasy. That “reality” here is presented as a flexible, circular extension of perception (What roles do we all play? Is there a difference between identity and self-perception? What responsibility does one person owe another?), is what makes Secret Ceremony – a not very well-regarded film by critics and audiences alike – one of my absolute favorites.
Observing the portrait of Cenci and her mother, Leonora reacts to the dual likeness to herself and her deceased daughter. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Secret Ceremony is a rarity amongst my list of favorite films. Inasmuch as it’s a movie I enjoy and admire a great deal, yet I don’t know of a single soul to whom I could recommend it in good conscience. The film is just that weird.
For me, it has Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow giving fascinating, sharper-than-appearances-belie performances to recommend it (they stay true to their dysfunctional characters even at the risk of losing the audience), and the always-intriguing Joseph Losey, whose marvelous films, The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between reveal the artist’s deft hand at dramatizing offbeat psychological complexities. 
But chiefly, Secret Ceremony appeals to me because it addresses themes I find myself drawn to in film after film. Themes for which I so obviously harbor some kind of aesthetic predisposition, their mere inclusion in a movie’s narrative are perhaps enough to blind me to that film’s flaws. 
Secret Ceremonies
As a prelude to their ritualized games of incestuous role-playing, Albert, Cenci's lecherous stepfather, in a mock ceremonial gesture, places a wedding ring on her finger. All of the characters in Secret Ceremony engage in formalized patterns of behavior designed to avoid self-confrontation and purge guilt.
From even a cursory glance at the list of films I've written about on this blog, it’s obvious that I harbor a particular fondness for movies about psychological dysfunction and personality displacement (I don’t even want to think what that means). 3 Women, Images, Dead Ringers, The Maids, That Cold Day in the Park, Vertigo, and Black Swan, are all favorites having something to do with the shifting nature of identity and personality. Each is a melodrama or psychological thriller in which an individual or individuals (usually women) are at the center of a story that uses metaphor and allegory to explore themes of duality, role-playing, identity-theft, loss, longing, insanity, guilt, redemption, and, most significantly for me, the basic human need to connect.

When I saw Secret Ceremony as a preteen, its title struck me as nonsensical. Viewing it now, I discover that one of my absolute favorite things Losey does with the movie is to establish from the outset a recurring motif of ceremony and religious ritual (frequently in solitude or secret, like a confession) that serves to both underscore and emphasize the film’s primary theme: the pain of loss and the passing of evil.
Leonora’s act of immediately removing her identity-concealing blond wig and washing her face after a john leaves her apartment is like a baptism ceremony designed to cleanse and wash away the “sin” of her actions.
As if enacting a passion play, Cenci engages in elaborate, incestuous, rape fantasies that cast her as a victim and absolve her of having to face her own sexual precocity or her repressed feelings of hostility and competitiveness toward her late mother.
Religious imagery and iconography abound. Prayers recited to protect the fearful from harm; lullabies sung to quiet restless souls; and throughout, scenes take place in and around churches and cemeteries, heightened by the death/rebirth symbolism of funerals and baptisms.

PERFORMANCES
Indicative of Secret Ceremony’s all-encompassing strangeness is the fact that, even as I write (in all seriousness) about what a provocative and arresting film I consider it to be, I’m also fully aware and understand why it has become a camp classic of bad cinema (the scene where she wolfs down a huge English breakfast and shows her appreciation with a huge, unladylike belch is a camp highlight).
For me, Secret Ceremony’s is an example of the kind of risky, baroque style of filmmaking that died out in the 70s (Ken Russell was a master). A kind that takes so many chances that it can court giggles while still managing to unsettle.
In this scene, Elizabeth Taylor's excellent performance is undermined by unflattering costuming that is arguably character-based (Leonora is coarse and unsophisticated) or just plain ugly 60s mod.

Elizabeth Taylor long ago proved to be a natural for the brand of purple, overstated acting a film like this calls for, and Mia Farrow once again shows that there’s not an actress alive better suited to hitting all the right notes in a role requiring woman-child / sane-unstable ambiguity.
Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown are outstanding as the light-fingered, meddlesome aunts
As Alfred, personal fave Robert Mitchum rallies around his patented brand of complaisant sexual menace (if not a very sure accent. What is it supposed to be British? Scottish?) to ratchet up the psychodramatic stakes by going head to head (and psychosis to psychosis) with Taylor is a combustible test of wills.
Leonora, really getting into the whole playacting thing

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Even as a kid I was blown away by the gorgeous mansion occupied in solitary madness by Mia Farrow's character. With its ornate furnishings; eclectic, Moroccan and art nouveau  design; and those mesmerizing blue and green ceramic tiles that line the walls and hallways like some Dali-eque mental institution of the mind...this house is as much a participant in Secret Ceremony's drama as The Dakota was in Rosemary's Baby.
The mansion used in the film is Debenham House, located in the Holland Park district of London. Built around 1896, architect Halsey Ricardo is one of perhaps several who worked on its design. Secret Ceremony production designer Richard MacDonald is credited with refurbishing the house and designing studio sets (the main bedroom, for instance) to blend with the original style.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
There’s no getting past the fact that Secret Ceremony is a strange film not suited to everyone’s taste. But another word for strange is interesting, and on that score I cast my vote for directors who take chances over those who play it safe.
On the commentary track for the 1970 British cult film, Goodbye Gemini (a remarkably bizarre film that could go toe-to-toe with Secret Ceremony for weirdness), producer Peter Snell speaks of a time when movies were made because someone found a story to be interesting, paying only marginal heed to things like what market the film should target and how well it would play outside of big cities. While this was probably a terrible way to run the “business” side of the movie business, quite a lot of worthwhile films were made. Not necessarily good ones, but at least they were films that sparked debate, discussion, and thought.
It's time to speak of unspoken things...
Secret Ceremony has Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum giving two of their better late-career performances (Taylor, in particular, is quite moving), and early-career Mia Farrow giving what amounts to her last cogent performance before her Woody Allen years (although I’m partial to 1977’s The Haunting of Julia), so therefore I think it's worth at least a look if you’re unfamiliar with it.
But remember, I’m not exactly recommending it. I’m just sort of dropping a hint.
Dear God, by whose mercy
I am shielded for a few hours
Let no one snatch me from this heaven

As of this writing, Secret Ceremony isn’t available on DVD in the US.
*Thanks to Allen Knutson  for finding Secret Ceremony (in installments) on YouTube

Copyright © Ken Anderson

22 comments:

  1. _I don’t know of a single soul to whom I could recommend it in good conscience. The film is just that weird._

    Okay NOW you're talking. I stopped reading the review at that point because I'm going to see this and don't want to be spoiled!

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    1. Also, I found it on DVD on Amazon, and on YouTube in pieces.

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    2. Ha! OK, Allen, but you've been warned!
      I didn't know about the YouTube installment version, but beware of the Amazon DVD, its a PAL format disc and might not play in US machines. However, if you're interested, you can find US copies on iOffer or Ebay sometimes.

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  2. We must be about the same age, Ken. I remember that the adults in my life at the time thought that the whole thing was kinda "sick" - so that intrigued me. And I loved that name, "Secret Ceremony." Thanks for filling me in (all these years later) on what it was all about. You're a terrific writing - keep 'em coming! Best, Michael

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    1. Thanks, Michael
      Although I'm not so sure I explained what this unusual film is all about so much as revealed how my own twisted mind works.
      I kind of forgot that "sick" was indeed a word applied to this film at the time, and how older moviegoers took it as a sign of what trouble the "new permissiveness" in movies had wrought.
      When you're young, anything enigmatic seems irresistible, so I too was drawn by the title, "Secret Ceremony."
      If we are indeed about the same age, it pleases me to know someone else out there was drawn to age-inappropriate films too. Thank you for the kind words!

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  3. Argyle, here. I knew there was someone, somewhere living the life that I wanted to be living when I was around 11, and it was you! (I can’t believe you got to see this in a theater at the time of release.) Your films of choice from the late 60's/early 70's invariably toll a distant gong in the labyrinthine corridors of my psyche. I think I eventually got to see this on a network movie night, probably ABC – they seemed to show the less family-friendly movies. I had gotten wind of it, as you say, from furtive perusal of movie magazines probably at the barber shop or somewhere less controlled than my home where I was lucky to see an occasional “Look” or “Time.” (The parents across the street from us censored all their magazines, tearing out questionable pages.) My parents never would have taken it that far – they just disdained (and avoided) most media. Welcome to suburban South Carolina! Needless to say, I scoured anything I could get my hands on for ambiguity, mystery and glamour. Still do. I just remember being mesmerized by the silky, sort of humid atmosphere of this movie. I’m sure I understood none of it, was probably bored by some of it, and eventually got it confused in my mind with “Ash Wednesday” from 1973. That’s a pretty good set of brackets for me - 1968 and 1973. Eventually, I saw “The Boy with Green Hair” also by Joseph Losey, and he became a significant name for me. That shot of Mia under the table is incredible. Something like that registers with you as a kid and years later you discover Balthus. When I saw the screen cap of the room with the blue-green tiles, it immediately made me think of Whistler’s Peacock Room and settings for the film “The Wings of the Dove.” A little web research, and there it is - also filmed at Debenham House (and other locations.) Anyway, wish I had more concrete recollections of the movie. Or could go see it tonight! Maybe my point is you see something, maybe just a glimpse, maybe you sleep through half of it, maybe you’re not supposed to see it but you do and it slips in and animates something else you see years later and you’ve got a history. Your blog is amazing, Ken!

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  4. Hi Argyle
    Very funny what you say about my seeing movies like this at such a young age. it helps to remember that in 1968 there wasn't even a movie rating code yet, and that "for mature audiences' was just a suggestion. Theaters let ANYBODY in.
    As to why my parents didn't step in and stop me has more to do with my being one of five kids and I honestly think they didn't care where we went on Saturdays, just so long as we got out of the house and stayed out. My film geek self will always be grateful for tired parents.
    Your upbringing, on the other hand, sounds like the mirror opposite.Ergo, you must be sane.

    If you saw this on TV I wonder if you saw that weird redited version that had this framing device of a therapist Taylor's character had visited after the events of the film, and he actually gives voiceover, explaining what's going on! I don't remember too much about it except that rather than have her be a prostitute, the therapist said she was a "Wig Model"!!
    I'd love to get my hands on that cut. It was like a completely different film.

    two brilliant things in your comment: 1) the reference to the works of Balthus. That's an amazingly apt visual correlative to that image of Farrow under the table, and indeed of the feel of "Secret Ceremony" altogether. I just love that and envy your perception there. 2) finding that amazing mansion in "the Wings of the Dove", a film I've seen but obviously didn't pay too close attention to. That house was SUPER creepy to me as a kid. I love that it made an impression on you as well. (I had to look up the image of Whistler's Peacock Room. - another gorgeous, perfect reference for the look of this film.

    Lastly, what you say about the images in films is so true. Anyone who thinks that film images don't infiltrate our dreams, memories, and psyches is in serious denial (the advertising industry is built upon it). Subtle, fleeting things can be so powerful, things you barely thought you noticed can stay with you a lifetime.
    You often apologize for not having concrete recollections of a film, then you go and blow me away with these great, almost subliminal patterns they've made on you imagination.
    I should be thanking you, Argyle, but I appreciate that you find my blog amazing. It isn't, but i'm thrilled you think so.


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  5. The kneejerk reaction of biographers of Taylor routinely dismiss much of her latter day work as "bombs," but frankly I think Secret Ceremony and Reflections in a Golden Eye are two of ET's best, and X, Y, and Zee is mod romp version of Virginia Woolf. Even Boom, bizarre as it is, has its virtues. Much of Elizabeth's '60s and early '70s choices were influenced by what Richard was doing, especially art house choices like Doctor Faustus and Under Milkwood.

    Sidenote: A couple of the couture outfits pictured here were in Taylor's big Christie's auction...

    I love reading your take these films...thank you!

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    1. Hi Rico
      You're so right. Someone who dropped by this blog a while back brought up a similar point about Elizabeth Taylor's latter-day work, and I am really inclined to agree. She is very good in a number of films that were dismissed for one reason or another. (I like her in X,Y, and Zee as well).
      And that's very interesting about the Taylor auction items! I'm glad you noticed that! Thanks very much Rico, and I'm glad you like reading these posts!

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  6. Again, Ken, you've written a beautiful article that makes me want to take a new look at a film that I had previously written off. Now I want to see Secret Ceremony through your eyes. I LOVE Taylor and Farrow, but could not make head nor tail of this strange when I first saw it on TV as a kid. (This was the infamous chopped up version with Taylor as a "wig model"--could somebody actually make a living doing that, ever??) Then saw it again in its original form on TCM but frankly did not enjoy it much more. Very depressing and lugubrious. But moody, atmospheric and dreamlike, too.

    Farrow is appropriately creepy in this mute role...I just bought a copy of the Altman film A Wedding (10 years after Ceremony) and she plays the same sort of role, with a comic Altman twist. Mia is fearless as an actor and always goes for it.

    Taylor's role is less well defined. I prefer her more histrionic role as Sissy Goforth in Boom to the character of Leonore here. (I don't much like Boom either though, even though it was visually stunning on the big screen. )

    So, not a fan of either of director Losey's 1968 films with Liz. His 1963 film of The Servant with Dirk Bogarde is brilliant, though. But I've read that Losey had trouble focusing on his work because he was dazzled and exhausted by the jet-set lifestyle of the Burtons, which included boozy yachting weekends and multiple-martini lunches on the set. I think both these Losey films need surgical editing and script doctoring, because there's so much talent and promise up there on the screen.

    But you and Rico are right--Elizabeth Taylor is a great actress, not just a great beauty or great star, and this is another example of Taylor's underrated range and versatility.


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    1. Thank you for such a flattering comment, Chris. Although perhaps your feelings about this movie are better left as they are.
      I truly think my response to "Secret Ceremony" has a great to deal with my personal psychological wiring and because I've lived long enough to really understand a certain kind of pain that comes with loss. When i was young the finality of death hadn't touched me at all, but when I see this film now, i really get how much anguish can come from regret connected with a death. The way you are left with all the unsaid and unattond for things that can never be made up.
      It appeals to me that the characters of Farrow and Taylor are drawn into this agreed upon dementia in which each gets a "do over" with the person they lost. Mostly for their own sake,
      That the film built around this very compelling emotional drama is so weird feels very much organic to the illness of the people involved, but I think it also serves to alienate audiences.
      If indeed you should take another stab at it (sounds like you really gave it a good shot) i'd love to hear what you think of it in a "three strikes you're out" manner.
      By the way, I laughed at the the idea of a"wig model" too. It's preposterous.
      And I'm glad you mentioned how Farrow plays another sort of mute character in "A Wedding". I don't always make that connection but they are indeed similar!
      The stuff you say about Losey and the Burton's is fully understandable. They sound like their lifestyle could turn anyone's head.
      Ultimately, I 'm glad to hear you find Taylor to be a somewhat underrated actress and that some of her dismissed films succeed in displaying a certain versatility on her part.
      So appreciate the thoughtful comments, Chris. Your film blog is one of my favorites! http://angelman.blogspot.com/

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  7. Always a pleasure, Ken, this is my #1 favorite spot on the Web to interact with fellow film lovers! Because of Le Cinema Dreams, I never again have to wonder "what shall I watch;" I come away with new films to look forward to, from you and your amazing group of followers. And I love to watch the movies you write about, "through your eyes" as it were!

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    1. I have to concur with you on your point about learning so much about films from the folks who take the time to comment. You and so so many who write here are such many amazingly knowledgeable film enthusiasts! I'm always adding to my list of films I need to see.

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  8. Hello Ken. This is a very strange and bizarre film made even more fascinating with the big stars playing such odd characters in such a luxurious setting. All of this easily makes it camp, as you say. Like many of the responses to your review about the film, I can't make heads or tails of it. Maybe a lot is explained in the book?

    I love that the big film studios put huge sums of money into making art house movies in the 60s and 70s. Very brave of all of the people involved. They must have thought they were making *art*! Losey and Taylors "Boom" is equally nutty. Every scene in those movies could be analyzed and quoted. I have seen "Secret Ceremony" a few times but now I want to watch again after your excellent review. It was so long ago since I saw it that all I remember is the marvelous and cavernous house and that it was beautifully shot.
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      Yes, this is a strange one. in some ways it reminds me of one of those episodes of "Night Gallery" that used to annoy me because it seemed to go out of its way not to make any sense (a good example is an episode titled "The House" with Joanna Pettet).
      I understand that the book is rather different (there is no Robert Mitchum character at all) but it's hard to find an Engish translation copy (although I saw a copy of a promotional paperback written from the screenplay on Ebay once).
      That such a weird movie could draw name stars and get big studio backing is a big reason why I love films of the 60s and 70s so much. Hollywood was as eager to chase a buck then as it is now, but because of the youth market and trying to keep in step with all those foreign films college kids were turning into hits, Hollywood almost had a policy of "The weirder the better!"
      Not all eccentric films appeal to me, but this and "Boom!" are interesting to me. it sounds like you've already given "Secret Ceremony" a fair shake...but if you're like me and haven't seen the film in several years, perhaps you'll discover, as I did, that my being older significantly changes how the film hits you.
      As I stated, I don't know of anyone to whom I could recommend this film straight out, but if you've ever lost someone and didn't know what to do with all the feelings for them that are left behind, all the things you didn't get to say to them, and all the regrets you'll never get to apologize to them for...well, I'd be surprised if "Secret Ceremony" doesn't touch you a little bit by being a somewhat poetic take on how desperate people can become carrying those burdens around. On that level, I think "Secret Ceremony" is beautiful. But WEIRD!
      Thanks, Wille!

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    2. Hello Ken, your review of "Secret Ceremony" inspired me to watch the film again. I enjoyed it even more this time. The first time I saw it I thought it was wonderful but I couldn't make heads or tails of Liz's character. I thought she was too gorgeous and regal looking to be a prostitute. She also changed accents half way through. I did find Mia Farrow and that mansion fascinating, though.

      This time round I felt that both actresses gave really strong performances that were also sensitive. The whole situation between the women seemed more sad this time, as if it became clear that the relationship would never work. The film becomes tragic when they go off to the seaside. It became evident that Cenci was mentally ill. When they still were in London they semed to have quite a cosy life together.

      You are so right about how missing a loved one so much it aches in the heart. Cenci lost her mind when she lost her mother. Or was she aware that it was all an act (at least in the beginning of the film)?

      I agree that the big studios then wanted to make money by making films that seemed deep and european while filling them with some of their american biggest stars. That's why this film and "Boom!" are so fascinating. They want to considered arty and glamorous at the same time!
      -Wille

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    3. Hello Ken, your review of "Secret Ceremony" inspired me to watch the film again. I enjoyed it even more this time. The first time I saw it I thought it was wonderful but I couldn't make heads or tails of Liz's character. I thought she was too gorgeous and regal looking to be a prostitute. She also changed accents half way through. I did find Mia Farrow and that mansion fascinating, though.

      This time round I felt that both actresses gave really strong performances that were also sensitive. The whole situation between the women seemed more sad this time, as if it became clear that the relationship would never work. The film becomes tragic when they go off to the seaside. It became evident that Cenci was mentally ill. When they still were in London they semed to have quite a cosy life together.

      You are so right about how missing a loved one so much it aches in the heart. Cenci lost her mind when she lost her mother. Or was she aware that it was all an act (at least in the beginning of the film)?

      I agree that the big studios then wanted to make money by making films that seemed deep and european while filling them with some of their american biggest stars. That's why this film and "Boom!" are so fascinating. They want to considered arty and glamorous at the same time!
      -Wille

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    4. Hi Wille
      So glad you seem to be giving this film a chance to "work" on its own levels. "Secret Ceremony" suffers a bit from its stylistic strangeness. So much so that (as you so rightly noted) the sensitivity of the performances and the poignant sadness of the relationships is fairly lost for those with no patience for trying to wade through the unexplained bizarrenss.
      Based on what we learn about Liz's character in the final scenes, I've always interpreted her being a hooker as something she fell into out of grief for her lost daughter. A way of debasing and punishing herself for her inattention.
      This adds a layer of desperation to her need to get it "right" with her new daughter, Cenci. Her floating accent is (once again , just my interpretation) an indication of her failed attempt at being a lady (note her preposterous babbling after Cenci catches her using a common vulgarism her real mother -already established as being prissy - would never use in a million years).
      Your tapping into the tragedy of that seaside visit leads me to believe that this movie is really starting to make sense to you and that the extra effort is paying off. Not many many movies require or even invite the level of scrutiny that "Secret Ceremony " does, but I hope you feel the time has been worth it. It's a very intriguing kind of psychological thriller.
      Lastly, I think you nailed Hollywood's problem during the European influence years of the late 60s/early 70s: they tried to apply Hollywood studio system aesthetics (the star system, for one) to what were essentially art films. American audiences didn't know what hit them!
      Thanks for you extremely thoughtful re-examination of the film. Love that you felt the film warranted another look!

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  9. Ken-I LOVE that Night Gallery episode with Joanna Pettet!
    I saw it several times as a grade schooler and I always remembered her driving to "The House" in slo-mo...running up to the door in slo-mo, knocking, knocking at the door!
    Imagine my pleasant surprise to find it you can watch it on Hulu! I watched it with a straight male friend of mine, who agreed with me that Joanna Pettet was a total fox!
    I love your frame of references ; )

    Perhaps someday you will review ET's "The Driver's Seat/Identikit"! It's a crazy but fascinating movie!

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    1. Rico
      So funny that you even remember that episode! I had quite an obsession with Ms. Pettet as a teen, and remember vividly all of her "Night Gallery" episodes. "The House" being one of the more frustrating. I never tired of looking at her though.
      Based on your comment I went to Hulu to revisit it, and it makes no more sense to me now than it did way back when. Maybe you can explain it to me!
      And I haven't seen "The Driver's Seat" in about 15 years now. I look forward to seeing if it hold up to how fondly I remember it.

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  10. I haven't see this film but per your description it sounds like a MUST-SEE. And I'm wondering about that re-edited version -how do you turn a hooker into a wig model when she seems to have 'clients' visiting her (or maybe that bit was cut out entirely?).

    I've found Losey's 60s films such as The Servant to be elliptical and very much 'hinting' in their style and telling -- they never come out and tell you directly what's going on, so audiences are left free to draw their own conclusions (the Pinter script certainly helped). My guess is that Secret Ceremony came across in that elusive, 'European' style, which is why American audiences, used to having things S-P-E-L-L-E-D out (think of the film Psycho and how Hitchcock worried that his film would fail without the final scene of the psychiatrist 'explaining' Norman Bates), would have found it confusing or 'sick.' I wonder if many 60s-early 70s films were also trying to reproduce alternate states of consciousness, influenced by drugs and therapies like TM and such - all very alien experiences to most Americans at that time.

    I recently read a bio of Robert Mitchum, and he apparently didn't take this film too seriously when he was making it, but he was always a pro in his work and directors did like him. If you're interested in what Taylor's lifestyle was like at the time she was making these films, I can recommend the Richard Burton diaries, which make fascinating, compulsive reading. The man was not only a great actor but a terrific writer, and he really goes into descriptions of binges, parties, film-making, etc, all part of the Taylor-Burton high life then.

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  11. You made me laugh with your wondering how one goes about transforming a hooker into a wig model (they delete the shot of the john departing and merely show her placing her blond wig on a wig stand. Her profession is never alluded to again).

    I think your familiarity with Losey's films makes you a very good candidate for this movie, for it sounds as if you are well acquainted with his style. I think you nailed exactly the source and substance of this kind of filmmaking, and your "Psycho" reference is perfect.
    My visits to IMDB (where the average ratio for a difference of opinion is about two posts before things get nasty) confirm to me that Americans still don't like movies that ask that you draw your own conclusions.
    I ddn't read the Mitchum bio, but I read one on Joseph Losey and he apparently had the worst time with Mitchum in this film. And as for the Burton diaries, on the strength of your recommendation I have put that book on my Amazon wish list in hopes that my honey will get it for me for Christmas. It sounds right up my alley.
    If you ever do get around to seeing and surviving this film, I'd be so interested to find out your thoughts on it. Thanks, GOM!!

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